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Depressed people spend more time chatting online

What if your smartphone were to tell you, “I think you need to see a mental health professional?”

It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but researchers now say that someday soon our laptops -- and our phones -- might be able to diagnose depression based simply on how we surf the net.

As it turns out, depressed people use the internet differently than others, spending more time chatting online and file-sharing, for example, according to a new study published

The study, which followed 216 college students, monitored actual Internet use and correlated certain patterns with higher scores on depression surveys.

Earlier research looking at the link between Internet use and depression depended on people’s memories of what they did and when, said study co-author Sriram Chellappan, an assistant professor of computer science at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

While that approach has yielded some interesting and important results, it isn’t as precise as one might like.

“If you were asked how many times you looked at your email last month, it would be impossible to give an accurate answer,” Chellappan said.

For the new study, Chellappan and his colleagues asked volunteers to fill out surveys that contained several questions designed to ferret out depression symptoms. The questions were asked in such a way that students wouldn’t realize that the researchers were interested in depression levels, Chellappan said.

Then, the researchers scrutinized study volunteers’ Internet use by monitoring what they did each time they logged on to the university server.

Chellappan is quick to point out that the surveys and internet monitoring were all done anonymously. Each volunteer was given a pseudonym at the beginning of the study and from that point on, they were only identified by their fictitious names.

Chellappan sees the new findings as possibly leading to an early warning system, an alarm that might tell us that we’re becoming depressed.

While other studies have correlated higher internet use with depression, often suggesting that too much time on the computer might actually lead to mental health issues, Chellappan sees these internet use patterns as a symptom.

In fact, he’d like to expand his research to look for associations between internet use and a host of mental health problems.